By Stephany Bittar
Urban gardens are cropping up all over the country, and it’s easy to see why. Growing food inside cities can be cheap, and can provide a new level of control over what we consume. Urban gardens can also strengthen communities by providing a healthy alternative to impoverished areas with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Tallahassee, for example, is home to at least five urban gardens. Detroit – one of the country’s leaders in urban agriculture – is home to over 1,300. In Florida, the rise of urban gardening has challenged existing zoning regulation and prompted both county- and city-level changes.
Zoning refers to how land is divided up by government authorities for different uses, such as residential, commercial, and agricultural. It came into practice in the United States in 1916, when New York City enacted the country’s first comprehensive zoning code. Municipal zoning codes have tended to prohibit agriculture in urban areas, driving agricultural development away from residential property in the interest of keeping home values high and reducing “nuisance lawsuits.” However, since 1979 Florida’s Right to Farm law has prevented local governments from regulating agricultural zoning more strictly than state level regulations. More recently, the Community Planning Act has allowed local governments greater control over their local growth management, but agricultural land continues to fall under the Right to Farm Act’s protection.
Still, urban gardens face many local regulations that threaten their existence. For example, they may be allowed inside cities, but only as additions to residential properties. According to a Leon County ordinance passed in 2009, small scale urban gardens – “small scale” meaning less than an acre – can exist without a permit, provided owners don’t sell their produce and agree to farm only during daytime hours. Urban gardens can’t take up more than half of a property’s area.
Cities can also effectively outlaw urban gardens by making compliance with zoning codes prohibitively expensive. In some parts of Florida, individually owned gardens are being shut down because they don’t comply with city ordinances. One of the most restrictive regulations on urban gardens right now is that they can’t legally be for-profit ventures, preventing owners from deriving any monetary benefit from them.
Urban gardens are growing faster than zoning regulations can keep up. The “buy local” movement and concerns about large industrial farming has made residents friendlier to farming in residential areas. Rather than change their rules to reflect changing preferences, cities often choose to ignore their zoning codes. For now, urban garden owners are given individual exemptions to or variances from the law, in order to avoid zoning conflicts. In most Florida cities, zoning exceptions, conditional use permits, and variances almost always require contacting the local growth management department, where developers and property owners pay fees to be heard at the next available development council meeting. Obtaining individual exemptions is time-consuming, and they ultimately offer little long-term security for urban gardeners. Moreover, planners resist giving exemptions because they become a form of “spot zoning,” a practice that violates the spirit and strategic planning intent that is a key justification comprehensive land-use planning.
Awareness about the need for comprehensive changes to zoning regulations arose in Leon County when one of its largest urban gardens, Ripe City, decided to start selling its produce. New zoning laws meant to explicitly accommodate urban gardening are expected to be completed by spring 2016. In the meantime, the City of Tallahassee has created a step-by-step guide on how to start a community garden.
As urban agriculture continues to grow in popularity, local and state government regulators will have to adapt their rules. Otherwise, this kind of business can’t hope to make a profit. There is certainly a history of conflict between agricultural and zoning policies, but residents near urban gardens appear to enjoy this intersection between farming and city life. Zoning ordinances have hindered this movement’s growth, but reforms in Tallahassee may prove fruitful.